Watching the news in recent years, particularly in Western Canada, it would be easy to conclude that wildfires are becoming more frequent and more severe. The Fort McMurray fire required the evacuation of all of the town’s 80,000 residents. Prince George, British Columbia is currently inundated with evacuees from surrounding communities under threat of looming flames. But the truth about wildfires is much more complicated than media coverage might portray.
Thanks to climate change, the fire season is longer. Decades ago, people in Canada didn’t have to worry about wildfires in May because it was still raining on the coast and snowing everywhere else. Now, wildfires can pop up when no one is ready, when funding is low, and when evacuation conditions are not ideal. And fighting fires comes with a pretty big price tag: this year’s fires have already cost more than $125 million to fight.
Complicating the story is a study by British researchers Prof. Stefan Doerr and Dr. Cristina Santin, who looked at global and regional wildfire data and determined that there is no clear global trend in wildfires. That is, year to year, there might be a lot of fires, there might be few, and nothing to indicate what type of year it is going to be. Natural Resources Canada agrees, showing no significant upward trend over 44 years of data; the chart also includes National Forestry Database information which actually shows a slight decline in the number of fires over the same period. The Province of British Columbia shows spikes in the number of wildfires in 2006, 2009, and 2015, and an extreme low in 2011; the data looks almost entirely random. Since we can’t tell when fires might be severe, it makes wildfire years hard to predict, and difficult for governments and citizens to be prepared, financially and practically.
The thing is, fire isn’t the problem, we are. The area between cities and wildlands is referred to as the wildland-urban interface. According to Doerr and Santin, population density in the wildland-urban interface is increasing dramatically as cities grow, suburbs expand, and rural, formerly wild areas are converted for human use. For example, The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray and a number of oilsands camps, grew in population by 124.5% between 2000 and 2012. That’s a lot more people living up against the boreal forest where wildfires are a very common occurrence. Fires that might have gone mostly unnoticed in previous years are now a direct threat to businesses, homes and infrastructure and the people who need them.
So what can we do when a wildfire threatens our society? Governments do their best to be prepared, to fund smoke jumper teams and encourage fire-safe building practices, to fight the fires when they occur and provide relief where possible. But fires are fast and governments are often...not. Luckily, many charitable organizations are set up specifically to respond quickly to these types of events. The Red Cross did an incredible job in Fort McMurray in 2016, and continues to provide humanitarian relief in fire-affected areas. Pets and livestock are often disproportionately affected by wildfires when their owners are not allowed to return home to provide care. Government agencies like the RCMP are putting in their best effort but often have more pressing issues to deal with. Charitable organizations like the Prince George Humane Society and the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team are picking up the slack but are badly in need of donations to maintain their rescue operations. And regular, everyday citizens are banding together to help disaster-stricken towns with donations of food, water, places to stay, personal items, even driving hundreds of kilometres to rescue horses, or sending resources from another province just to help out because they know what it means to receive a helping hand when you need it.
Wildfires are a part of our natural world, and in many cases, are beneficial to the ecosystems in which they occur. But when humans move into those ecosystems, we should be better prepared to deal with the possibility of fire and people meeting in the wildland-urban interface. Charity, both formal and informal, fills the gaps in our social safety net and reduces the impact that wildfires have on our cities and towns. If you want to do something to help, volunteer for a cause that you believe in, send needed items to affected areas, and give to a charity that works in an area close to your heart.